The Best Play race seems almost anticlimactic given that two of the top contenders are a decade or two old (True West, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan). Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde has created a stir, or Tony voters can try to work up some enthusiasm for Copenhagen -- heeding, presumably, Ben Brantley's advice not to have a couple of martinis before seeing it. Meanwhile, the year's most emotionally satisfying dramas, Jitney and Dinner With Friends, are running Off-Broadway and therefore ineligible. Among the musicals, Contact has taken on an air of invincibility that could fade if voters decide that thrilling dance numbers staged to recordings like "Simply Irresistible" simply don't constitute a real Broadway musical.
In every acting category, there are enough strong contenders to come up with four or five worthy nominees. (When Carol Burnett is the longest of long shots for a Best Actress nod, you know the field looks good.) But the most tantalizing question mark is the race for Best Actor in a Play. As Patrick Stewart's very public feud with the all-powerful Shuberts over publicity dollars demonstrates, leading performers really want to be nominated for a Tony. (Last season, eventual winner Brian Dennehy repeatedly claimed that he didn't care about awards, but nobody believed him; meanwhile, Kevin Spacey turned up at every theater benefit in town in support of his losing Best Actor bid.)
Consider the potential nominees, listed alphabetically--and not including the fabulous Dame Edna Everage, who was inexplicably ruled ineligible for consideration: Philip Bosco in Copenhagen, Gabriel Byrne in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Michael Cumpsty in Copenhagen, Jeffrey DeMunn in The Price, Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing, Philip Seymour Hoffman in True West, Derek Jacobi in Uncle Vanya, Roger Rees in Uncle Vanya, John C. Reilly in True West, Michael Sheen in Amadeus, Patrick Stewart in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, and David Suchet in Amadeus. Two other strong contenders, A Moon for the Misbegotten's Roy Dotrice and Dirty Blonde's Kevin Chamberlin, will be considered in the featured category (à la Elizabeth Franz last year).
For Tony nominators, these dozen names represent an embarrassment of riches... and a quartet of sticky co-star situations. The Tony administrators foolishly turned down True West's petition to consider Hoffman and Reilly for a joint nomination like the one given to Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner two years ago for playing Siamese twins in Side Show. Instead of recognizing Hoffman and Reilly's achievement in trading off the roles of siblings Austin and Lee, the nominating committee will consider only their performance in the role each actor played on opening night: Hoffman as Austin (the fussy brother), and Reilly as Lee (the wild brother). This ruling makes it far more likely that the nominators will avoid giving almost half of the Best Actor slots to one production. The other three co-star pairings are equally problematic. Sheen (as Mozart) and Rees (as Dr. Astrov) generally got better reviews than their higher billed co-stars. In Copenhagen, Bosco and Cumpsty are evenly matched and could cancel each other out given stiff competition from the rest of the field.
Suchet and Dillane are giving very different performances from their Tony-winning predecessors in the same roles -- Ian McKellen and Jeremy Irons, respectively -- but the nominators may have misty-eyed memories of the originals. There's a lot of O'Neill to sit through before getting to Gabriel Byrne's heartbreaking climactic scene in Moon. And then there's Patrick Stewart, who has dominated the headlines this week with his complaint of non-support from Mt. Morgan's producers. (The Shuberts replied with a formal complaint to Actors' Equity of unprofessional behavior by Stewart.) Will his outspokenness sit well with the Tony nominators, many of them card-carrying members of the Broadway establishment?
In short, it's anybody's guess which five actors will emerge as the first Tony nominees of the new century. But there are worse problems on Broadway than having to single out four outstanding performances from 12 deserving choices. Good luck to everyone... and have a great weekend!